Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Important Short Stories of the 20th Century: First Fifty Years

Individual short stories often just disappear.  Those that remain usually do so for two reasons:
(1) They get anthologized in text books and thus taught in classrooms
(2 They get discussed in articles and books

I have chosen the following list of approximately 200 stories based on those two criteria.  I will post a list of stories from the last half of the 20th century next week.  The dates reflect when the stories first appeared in book form. If you find errors or omissions, please let me know. I would appreciate it.

Cather, Willa          "Paul's Case" 1905
"Sculptor's Funeral" 1905
Forster, E. M.         "Other Side of the Hedge" 1904
"Road from Colonus" 1904
"Celestial Omnibus" 1911
Galsworthy, John     "Japanese Quince" 1910
Mann, Thomas        "Gladius Dei" 1902
"Infant Prodigy" 1903
"Tonio Kroger" 1903
"Death in Venice" 1912
"Railway Accident"
"Little Herr Friedman" 1903
Unamuno, Miguel de "Madness of Dr. Montarco" 1904

Akutagawa, Ryunosuke "Rashomon" 1915
Anderson, Sherwood Winesburg, Ohio 1919
Bunin, Ivan            "Gentleman from San Francisco" 1915
Dreiser, Theodore    "Lost Phoebe" 1916
Hesse, Hermann     "The Poet" 1913
Joyce, James         Dubliners 1914
Kafka, Franz          "Metamorphosis" 1915
"Judgment" 1916
"Country Doctor" 1919
Lawrence, D. H.      "Odor of Chrysanthemums" 1911
"Prussian Officer" 1913
"White Stockings" 1914
"Tickets, Please" 1919
Mansfield, Katherine  "Bliss" 1918
Pirandello, Luigi       "War" 1919

Akutagawa, Ryunosuke "In a Grove" 1922
Anderson, Sherwood "The Egg" 1921
"I Want to Know Why" 1921
"I'm a Fool" 1922
"Man Who Became a Woman" 1923
"Death in the Woods" 1926
Babel, Isaac           "How it Was Done in Odessa" 1923
"Crossing into Poland" 1924
"My First Goose" 1924
"Story of My Dovecote"
Callaghan, Morley    "Faithful Wife" 1929
Capek, Karel         "Last Judgment" 1929
Connell, Richard      "Most Dangerous Game" 1924
Coppard, A.E.        "Adam and Eve and Pinch Me" 1921
"Arabesque--the Mouse" 1921
"The Higgler" 1924
"Field of Mustard" 1926
Fitzgerald, F. Scott   "Diamond Big as the Ritz" 1922
"Absolution 1925
"The Rich Boy" 1926
"Winter Dreams" 1926
Glaspel, Susan       "Jury of Her Peers" 1927
Hemingway, Ernest   "Indian Camp" 1924
"Big, Two-Hearted River" 1925
"Soldier's Home" 1925
"Hills Like White Elephants" 1927
"In Another Country" 1927
"The Killers" 1927
Hurston, Zora Neale  "Spunk" 1925
"Sweat" 1926
Huxley, Aldous        "Young Archimedes" 1924
Kafka, Franz          "Hunger Artist" 1922
Kawabata, Yasunari  "Grasshopper and Cricket" 1924
Lagerkvist, Par        "Father and I" 1923
Lardner,Ring          "Haircut" 1925
"Golden Honeymoon" 1922
Lawrence, D. H.      "Blind Man" 1922
"Horse-Dealer's Daughter" 1922
"Woman who Rode Away" 1925
"Rocking-Horse Winner" 1926
"The Man Who Loved Islands" 1927
"Two Blue Birds" 1927
Mann, Thomas       "Disorder and Early Sorrow" 1926
Mansfield, Katherine  "Miss Brill" 1920
"Daughters of the Late Colonel" 1921
"Her First Ball" 1921
"The Fly" 1922
"Garden Party" 1922
"Marriage a al Mode" 1922
Maughm, Somerset   "Rain" 1921
"Outstation" 1924
Parker, Dorothy       "Big Blonde" 1929
Porter, Katherine Anne "Maria Concepcion" 1922
"Theft" 1929
Quirgo, Horacio       "Dead Man" 1920
Steele, Wilbur Daniel "Footfalls" 1920
Svevo, Italo            "Generous Wine" 1927

Toomer, Jean         "Fern" 1922
"Blood-Burning Moon" 1923
"Theater" 1923
Woolf, Virginia        "Haunted House" 1921

Aiken, Conrad        "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" 1932
Babel, Isaac          "In the Basement" 1930
"Guy de Maupassant" 1932
"Di Grasso" 1937
Beckett, Samuel      "Dante and the Lobster" 1932
Bontemps, Arna      "Summer Tragedy" 1933
Borges, Jorge Luis   "Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote" 1939
Bowen, Elizabeth     "Her Table Spread" 1930
"Tears, Idle Tears" 1937
Boyle, Kay            "Astronomer's Wife" 1936
"White Horses of Vienna"
Caldwell, Erskin       "Kneel to the Rising Sun" 1935
Callaghan, Morley    "Sick Call" 1932
Dinesen, Isak         "The Monkey" 1934
Faulkner, William     "Rose for Emily" 1930
"Dry September" 1930
"Spotted Horses" 1931
"That Evening Sun" 1931
"Barn Burning" 1939
Gordon, Carol ine     "Old Red" 1933
Greene, Graham     "The Basement Room" 1935
Hemingway, Ernest   "Clean, Well-Lighted Place" 1933
"Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber" 1936
Hughes, Langston    "On the Road" 1935
Lagerkvist, Par        "Children's Campaign" 1935
Landolfi, Tommaso   "Wedding Night" 1939
McCarthy, Mary       "Cruel and Barbarous Treatment" 1939
O'Connor, Frank      "Guests of the Nation" 1930
"First Confession" 1939
Porter, Katherine Anne" The Grave" 1935
"Noon Wine" 1936
"Jilting of Granny Weatherall" 1930
"Flowering Judas" 1930
Pritchett, V.S.         "Sense of Humor" 1937
Saroyan, William      "Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" 1934
Sartre, Jean Paul     "The Wall" 1937
Schorer, Mark         "Boy in the Summer Sun" 1937
Schultz, Bruno        "Street of Crocodiles" 1934
Schwartz, Delmore   "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" 1937
Shaw,         Irwin           "Girls in their Summer Dresses" 1939
Steele, Wilburn Daniel" How Beautiful with Shoes" 1932
Steinbeck, John       "The Snake" 1936
"Chrysanthemums" 1938
"Flight" 1938
Unamuno Miguel      "St. Emmanuel the Good, Martyr" 1933
Welty, Eudora                "Death of a Traveling Salesman" 1936
"A Piece of News" 1937
"Petrified Man" 1939
Williams, William Carlos" Use of Force" 1938
Wolfe, Thomas       "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" 1939
Fitzgerald, F. Scott   "Babylon Revisited" 1930
Wright, Richard       "Big Boy Leaves Home" 1936
"Bright and Morning Star" 1937

Borges, Jorge Luis   "Circular Ruins" 1940
"Tlon, Ugbar, Orbis, Tertius" 1940
"Garden of Forking Paths" 1941
"Lottery in Babylon" 1941
"Library of Babel" 1941
"Funes the Memorious" 1944
Bowen, Elizabeth     "Demon Lover" 1940
"Happy Autumn Fields" 1944
"Queer Heart" 1941
Bowles, Paul          "The Scorpion" 1945
"Distant Episode" 1947
Capote, Truman      "Tree of Night" 1943
"Miriam" 1945
Cheever, John        "Enormous Radio" 1947
Clarke, Walter van Tilburg "Portable Phonograph" 1941
"The Wind and the Snow of Winter" 1944
Dinesen, Isak         "Sailor-Boy's Tale" 1942
"Sorrow Acre" 1942
"Blue Jar" 1922
Ellison, Ralph         "King of the Bingo Game" 1944
"Flying Home" 1944
Gordimer, Nadine     "Train from Rhodesia" 1947
Greene, Graham     "Across the Bridge" 1949
"Hint of an Explanation" 1949
Jackson, Shirley      "The Lottery" 1948
Lavin,  Mary           "A Wet Day" 1944
"The Will" 1944
McCullers, Carson    "Tree, Rock, Cloud" 1942
Nabokov, Vladimir    "That in Aleppo Once" 1943
                     "Signs and Symbols" 1948
O'Connor, Frank      "Judas" 1947
"Drunkard" 1948
O'Faolain, Sean      "Man Who Invented Sin" 1944
"Innocence" 1946
O'Flaherty, Liam      "Two Lovely Beasts" 1946
Powers, J. F.         "Lions, Harts, and Leaping Does" 1943
"Prince of Darkness" 1946
"The Forks" 1947
"Valiant Woman" 1947
Pritchett, V.S.        "Saint" 1940
Salinger, J. D.        "Perfect Day for Bananafish" 1948
"Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut" 1948
Saroyan,William       "Summer of Beautiful White Horse" 1940
Shaw, Irwin           "Act of Faith" 1946
Singer, I.B.           "Spinoza of Market Street" 1944
"Gimpel the Fool" 1957
Stafford, Jean         "Interior Castle" 1947
Stegner, Wallace     "Butcher Bird" 1940
Taylor, Peter          "Fancy Woman" 1940
Trilling, Lionel         "Of This Time, Of That Place" 1943
Warren, Robert Penn"Blackberry Winter" 1946
Welty, Eudora                "Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden" 1940
"A Visit of Charity" 1941
"Why I Live at the PO" 1941
"Worn Path" 1941
"Powerhouse" 1941
White, E. B.           "Second Tree from the Corner" 1947
Wright, Richard       "Man Who Was Almost a Man" 1940

Monday, February 16, 2015

Why is the Short Story a Neglected Form?

One of the most curious inconsistencies between literary education and academic research is that while the short story is the most frequently taught literary form in high school and college classrooms, it is the literary form most ignored and neglected by academic critics and scholars. There are many reasons for this schism: the “bigger is better” bias that prejudices critics in favor of the novel, the old-fashioned notion that the short story is gimmicky and popular, and the unquestioned assumption that complex emotions and ideas cannot be treated in the short narrative form.

The pressure on writers by agents, editors, and critics to abandon the short story as soon as possible and do something serious with their lives--such as write a novel--is unrelenting. This narrative bias that bigger is better persists in spite of the fact that the faithful few who have ignored it are among the most critically acclaimed writers of the twentieth century:  Anton Chekhov, Jorge Luis Borges, Flannery O'Connor, Peter Taylor, Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Raymond Carver. 

The most obvious fact about the short story is that agents and editors are seldom enthusiastic about taking on a collection of short stories--unless the author is a name with a novel on his or her tally or unless the author is promising, and will promise a novel in the near future.  Why?  Well, because most people would rather not read short stories.  As the popularity of so-called "reality" television makes clear, most prefer the real to the fictional, especially if the real is highly fictionalized.  Only a half dozen or so wide circulation magazines still regularly publish fiction.

What's worse, those who read fiction would rather read novels than stories.  Why?  Most people want to believe that characters have a life of their own; and they have to live with them for a while in order to believe that.  Once you get started with a novel, you become friends, get familiar, take up residence.  With a short story, you no sooner are introduced to a story than it is over, leaving you a bit dazed.  With a collection of stories, you have to do this over and over again.  Unlike chapters in a novel that tease you with the illusion of continuity, short stories are always ending.  And often those conclusions--one of the form's most important aspects--are frustrating in their inconclusiveness.  Readers finish novels closing the book with a satisfied thump and a sense of a big job well done.  Because of its poetic compression, readers often finish short stories with a puzzled "huh."
In spite of the short story’s struggle in contemporary publishing, many teachers find it a most useful form with which to introduce students to the conventions and techniques of fiction.  However, students searching for guidance in their study of the short story are often frustrated by the lack of good criticism of the form. They find it especially difficult to locate helpful discussions of  important recent short stories.

The short story is a deceptively difficult form.  Just because it is small in size does not make it simple in significance.  Quite the contrary, the short story most often involves a more scrupulous use of language than the novel; it is often more like poetry than prose.  In truth, it is not a form that comes naturally, but that one has to learn to read.

One reason why the short story has not been popular or has not maintained its place in modern literature is that readers prefer the novel precisely because it does not demand anything more than perseverance in a continuous flow of reading, becoming one with the sustained rhythm and tone of the work.  William Dean Howells noted in 1901 that although the short story may be attractive when one runs across one singly in a magazine, the short story in a collection seems most repellant to the reader.  The reason stems from the very intensity and compression and suggestiveness of the form itself.  Reading one story, says Howells, one can receive a pleasant "spur to his own constructive faculty.  But if this is repeated in ten or twenty stories, he becomes fluttered and exhausted by the draft upon his energies; whereas a continuous fiction of the same quantity acts as an agreeable sedative."

 L.P. Hartley has said that "A dozen short course are harder for the mind to digest than one long course...`Starting and stopping' exhausts the reader's attention."  V.S. Pritchett has said much the same.  In spite of the work of Flaubert and James, the length, inclusiveness, and shapelessness of the novel creates a "bemusing effect."  "The short story, on the other hand, wakes the reader up.  Not only that; it answers the primitive craving for art, the wit, paradox and beauty of shape, the longing to see a dramatic pattern and significance in our experience, the desire for the electric shock." 
In 1923, O'Brien, in his Advance of the American Short Story, said:  "The short-story writers are the destined interpreters of our time to itself and our children." (his conclusion). 

Twenty years later, H. E. Bates, in his 1941 book said that new writers would find the form essential (In Kenyon Review in 1968, he says he does not know why he was wrong, except that it is a poetic form and that the new generation did not find this conducive)  In 1952, Ray West in his book on the short story, said in his conclusion that it seems likely that "we may someday come to view the short story as the particular form through which American letters finally came of age, through which the life of its people and the vision of its artists most nearly approached full expression."  William Peden's 1964 book on the American short story says that in the last two decades there have been more short story writers creating more skillfully than ever before. 

None of these predictions have panned out.  Today the short story is not a popular form with general readers, nor a respected form with academic critics--too demanding for the former; not demanding enough for the latter. 

So we beat on, boats against the current.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Michael Byers' The Coast of Good Intentions

Short stories have a bad habit of disappearing, originally showing up in little mags with small circulations and then appearing in collections that seldom get reviewed, get no publicity, and then languish on library shelves, which fewer and fewer people populate. If literature profs and academic critics do not find them teachable enough to anthologize in textbooks and explicate in the classroom, or complex enough to write about in journals, they just die. In my never-ending battle to keep good short stories alive, I occasionally call the attention of my readers to short story collections that, in my opinion, deserve to be read.  Today, I highlight the first collection of Michael Byers, The Coast of Good Intentions, published in 1998.

Byers, born in 1971 in Seattle, Washington, received his B.A. degree from Oberlin College in Ohio and taught elementary school in Louisiana for two years in the Teach for America program. He received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Michigan and attended the writing program at Stanford University before moving back to Seattle. He was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University between 1996 and 1998.  His story "Settled on the Cranberry Coast" was selected for the O. Henry Prize Stories in 1995; "Shipmates Down Under" was selected for The Best American Short Stories in 1997. The Coast of Good Intentions was a finalist for the Hemingway/PEN Award and won the Whiting Award of $30,000, given to "emerging writers of exceptional talent and promise," in 1999.

The stories of Michael Byers belong to a tradition in the contemporary short story, represented by Ethan Canin's 1988 Emperor of the Air and Christopher Tilghman's 1990 In a Father's Place. Like Canin and Tilghman, Byers affirms, in a seemingly simple, matter-of-fact way, the solid, unsentimental values of family, commitment, and hope for the future.  This is, of course, the kind of fiction that John Gardner urged in his book Moral Fiction (1978) and that Raymond Carver embodied in his 1983 collection Cathedral, hailed as mellower and more hopeful than his earlier, so-called "minimalist" stories.

Byers focuses primarily on men who, although certainly not simple, are simply trying hard to do their best.  They are, like the retired school teacher in "Settled on the Cranberry Coast," still looking hopefully to the future, or, when they do look to the past, are like the elderly couple in "Dirigibles," reaffirmed rather than disappointed by where they have been.  When Byers takes on the persona of a woman, as he does in "A Fair Trade," once again, the past is perceived without regret, the present is accepted with equanimity, and the future is looked forward to with hope.  Even the self-absorbed father in "Shipmates Down Under," who should take responsibility for his troubled marriage, and the young widow in "Spain, One Thousand and Three," who has, for ego's sake, treated women as conquests, ultimately are simply human with all the frailties humans are heir to.

Such understanding, loving, and forgiving values are, of course, hard to resist, but they are also hard to present without either irony or sentimentality.  Byers manages to avoid both, giving the reader characters who are neither perfect nor petulant, neither ironically bitter nor blissfully ignorant, but who are rather complex and believable human beings simply doing their best, which, Byers seems to suggest, is simply the most human thing anyone can do. Here are some comments on the major stories in The Coast of Good Intentions

"Settled on the Cranberry Coast" is a satisfying story about second chances or the pleasant realization that it's never too late to live, "Settled on the Cranberry Coast" is narrated by Eddie, a bachelor who has just retired after teaching high school for twenty-seven years and has taken up part-time carpenter work.  When Rosie, an old high school acquaintance, who has also never married, hires him to repair an old house she has just bought, the story focuses quite comfortably on their inevitable gravitation toward each other.  Rosie not only fills Eddie's need for a caring companion, her six-year-old granddaughter Hannah, who lives with her, gives him the child he has never had.

As Eddie makes Rosie's house sturdier, their relationship  grows as well, gradually affirming Eddie's opening sentence in the story, "This I know; our lives in these towns are slowly improving."  Eddie can imagine moving in with Rosie and Hannah, thinking that we don't live our lives so much as come to them, as people and things "collect mysteriously" around us.  At the end of the story, Eddie invites Hannah to go to the next town with him to buy radiators.  In a simple scene handled perceptively and delicately by Byers, Eddie stands under a parking-lot overhang in the rain, smoothing the sleeping child's hair, her head "perfectly round" on his shoulder. In a Carveresque final sentence, he thinks he is "on the verge of something" as he waits there listening to Hannah's easy, settled breathing.

Because Byers was only in his twenties when he wrote these stories, reviewer made much of his understanding of older characters, such as Eddie in "Settled on the Cranberry Coast."  In "Dirigibles,"  Howard and Louise, in their late sixties and retired, are visited by James Couch, a friend from the old days, who is stopping on his way from Seattle to Montana.  Couch talks about his daughter hang-gliding in outer space, and Howard realizes that he has "gone a little way around the bend, and he wasn't coming back."  When Howard sets up a movie projector to show Couch old home movies from the time when they were friends, it turns out he has put in the wrong film; what they see instead is a very brief scene of Louise, young and thin and almost all legs, running naked from one doorway to another.  Howard and Louise both laugh, remembering the event when he came returned from the navy and she came to the door nonchalantly nude.

After putting Couch to bed, the couple lie awake, and Howard says he played the greatest concert halls in Germany before the war, with ten thousand women waiting on his every need; he tells Louise to think of him like that, and she says "yes."  He tells her he flew "great dirigibles of the age" over the "great nations of the earth," and she says "yes."  And in the last line, when he says "It's true.  Everything is true," she says, "Oh, Howard. Howard."  The conclusion is a great affirmative paean to love and union, much like the end of Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy in Joyce's Ulysses.
"Shipmates Down Under" focuses on the protagonist's relationship with his nine-year-old son, who seems principled and controlled; with his six-year-old daughter, who becomes mysteriously ill; and with his wife, who feels an outsider to his connection with the children.   Because the daughter's illness threatens to dominate the story, the underlying marital conflict, which is its real subject, does not become apparent until the end when the child improves just as mysteriously as she fell ill.

The boy, who intuits the unspoken conflict between the parents, says he is writing a sequel to a boy's adventure book his father has recommended, and urges his father to take his mother on a vacation, since their planned vacation to Perth, Australia, the father's home, has been cancelled by the daughter's illness.  When the protagonist talks to his wife about this, she calls him "Mister Distant, Mister Nowhere, Mr. Say Nothing," accusing him of living in his own little world with the children while pretending she does not exist.  Although he denies this, when he sees the first sentence of his son's sequel--"My father and I live in Perth in a tiny white house with a wall around the garden"--he feels a "little bloom of secretive joy" in his heart.  The story ends with his thinking that he will apologize to his wife and that they will make it.  However, when he imagines them finally taking their disrupted trip to Australia, what he thinks of is the children remembering the experience, the hotel standing strong and unchanging, "the solid keeper of my precious cargo, these two damaged packages of my detailed dreams."

The central character in the story, "In Spain, One  Thousand and Three," Martin Tuttleman, tries to cope with the loss of his wife at age twenty-five to cancer.  A computer game designer, he has been off work so long with her illness that he now, at least temporarily, works in the support department, giving phone advice to kids playing the game he helped design.  The primary focus of the story is Martin's constant sexual fantasies about women.  Before his marriage, he had slept with every woman he could, and thinks of himself as having had more sex than anyone he knew.  Now that his wife, who completely filled his sexual life during their marriage, is dead, he has begun to fantasize about other women again.

The central crucial event in the story is an ambiguous encounter with his mother-in-law in his wife's old bedroom.  When he takes one of his shirts out of her closet, the mother embraces him, and he compares the feel of her body to that of his wife.  They begin rubbing against each other, like "shy dancers" and then abruptly push away. The story ends with his father-in-law angrily confronting him, demanding that he apologize.  When he does so, he feels good, as if he were saying he is sorry to all the women he has seduced. 

"A Fair Trade" is the longest story in the collection, and covers the longest span of time, practically the whole life of the central character Andie, beginning at age fourteen with her trip to live with her aunt for a period after her father's death and her mother's emotional breakdown, and ending with a visit to her aunt some forty years later when she is in her fifties.  However, most of the story focuses on the time Andie lived with her aunt Maggie; the rest of her life is recounted in brief summary. 

During this period, Andie has fantasies about a mysterious European man who works for the elderly couple who live across the road.  The only real plot complications occur when Maggie's unscrupulous boyfriend, who, trying to get the elderly couple's farm, threatens to tell the authorities that the man has made sexual advances to Andie; when Maggie finds out, she sends the boyfriend packing.
The last part of the story covers Andie's life after she returns to her mother--summarizing her marriage, divorce, her daughter's going off to college, and finally her move back to Seattle when she is fifty-five.  Seeing her aunt's old boyfriend, now in his eighties, on television prompts a visit to her aunt, who has adopted a gay man, and who has a boyfriend in his seventies.  Although her aunt tells her she should have a man, Andie looks forward to twenty more years of being alone.  She feels she has made a "fair trade," that her way is not a bad way to live.  As she sits in a restaurant with her aunt and her adopted son, she shuffles her feet under the table, thinking that from other tables she may appear to be dancing.

Michael Byers has published two novels and several short stories in the last two decades and is an assistant professor of literature at the University of Michigan. The Coast of Good Intentions is a book that deserves to be read and reread.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

David Means: Master of the Short Story

The Secret Goldfish (2004) is David Means’ third book, and it goes against good economic sense, not to mention the probable pleas of his agent and publishers, that it is, once again, a book of short stories. Although his earlier collection, Assorted Fire Events (2000), won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction, was short listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and received rave reviews both in America and England, still it was just a collection of short stories.
 I suspect the guy can’t help it.  Like Borges, who once said that a short story may be, for all purposes, “essential," or Andre Dubus, who said he loved short stories because “they are the way we live," or Alice Munro, who once told an interviewer that she doesn’t write novels because she sees her material in a short-story way, David Means-- like Chekhov, Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, and Grace Paley--sees the world in a short-story way.
To understand that “short-story way,” pick upThe Secret Goldfish  But don’t rush through them. Read one, put the book by and meditate on the mystery of the human condition the story explores. Then wait a while before reading another. The short story is often misunderstood and underrated because readers read it the same way they do sections of novels. 
Don’t go to David Means for plot that rushes to its inevitable end or for easily recognizable character, like the folks you meet every day. Go to David Means for some scary, sacred, sense that what happens is not as important as what it signifies and for the shock of recognition that those you thought you knew you don’t really know at all. You go to Means for mystery and the paradox understood by the great short story writers from Poe to Chekhov to Carver--that if you remove everything extraneous from a scene, an object, a person, its meaning is revealed, stark and astonishing.
The first paragraph of the first story, “Lightning Man,” makes clear that the realm of reality that matters for Means is sacramental, ritualistic, miraculous--a world in which the old reassurances, such as lightning never strikes twice in the same place, are shown to be nonsense. Here a man is struck seven times throughout his life by a powerful revelatory energy until he becomes a mythic creature, waiting for the inevitable eighth.
In the short-story world of David Means, a mundane tale of infidelity and divorce gets transformed by the metaphoric stillness of a neglected goldfish in a mucked-up tank, surviving in spite of the stagnation around it. Means’ short stories are seldom satisfied with linearity of plot and thus often become lists of connected mysteries. “Notable Dustman Appearances to Date” is a series of hallucinatory manifestations of famous faces in swirling dust kicked up by wind or smoke:  Nixon, Hemingway, Gogol, Jesus.
“Michigan Death Trips” is a catalog of catastrophic disruptions, as people abruptly disappear beneath the ice of a frozen lake, are suddenly struck on the highway, or hit by a stray bullet from nowhere.“Elyria Man," lays bare mummified bodies found lying beneath the soil, as if patiently waiting to embody some basic human fear or need.
In each of these stories, David Means reveals the truth of our lives the way great art always has—by making us see the world as it painfully is, not as our comfortable habits hide it from us. 
In an interview after the publication of his award-winning second collection, Assorted Fire Events (2000), Means said he feels that if you're really good at something you should keep doing it.  His fourth collection, The Spot (2010), thirteen new stories, which originally appeared in The New Yorker, Zoetrope, Harper’s, and other places, is just one more piece of evidence that Means is very good at what he does.
Since his first collection, A Quick Kiss of Redemption (1993), Means has largely moved away from Chekhovian realism, taking more chances with experimental narrative structure. Pursuing tactics begun in Assorted Fire Events and made more evident in his last collection, The Secret Goldfish (2004), Means takes increasing liberties in The Spot with storytelling techniques to explore the nature and importance of storytelling itself.
Two stories in The Spot focus on tramps gathered around a campfire spinning yarns.  In “The Blade,” the central character, Ronnie, hesitates about telling his peers his “blade story,” for he knows it will involve making explanations about how he spent a couple of years with an old tramp named Hambone, which would expose the old tramp to the ridicule of the men.  Ronnie’s blade story centers on his waking up one morning with Hambone holding a knife at his throat, insisting that if Ronnie does not believe the good things he has told him about his mother, he will kill him.  However, Hambone has told Ronnie two stories: one characterizing his mother as a wonderful woman and another, two months earlier, in which he said she did not have a decent bone in her body.  Even though Ronnie tries to placate Hambone by agreeing that his mother was a great woman, the old man does not let up; Ronnie is forced to turn the knife and kill him, making his blade story one in which he wields the weapon.
Means’ second hobo story, “The Junction,” is considerably lighter, but no less focused on the importance of storytelling. The central character is a man named Lockjaw, who, like all hoboes whose lives depend on telling convincing stories, knows that one has to spin out a yarn and keep it spinning until the food is in your belly and you are out the door.  The story, which has to be just right, is drawn not from one’s own life, but from an amalgamation of other tales the teller has heard in the past, within which he must weave his own needs.  Lockjaw tells the other tramps about spinning a story at the kitchen table of a family who is feeding him. When the husband asks him if he has taken Jesus as his savior, Lockjaw responds a little too fast to be believed, and the man goes upstairs and gets his gun. However, the wife cajoles her husband and tells Lockjaw that if he returns, she will set out a piece of pie for him on the windowsill.  The story ends with Lockjaw’s coming back for the pie, which may or may not be the subject of another story.
In addition to hoboes and tramps, Means explores in three stories another group of characters who live their lives on the road--thieves and scam artists. “Nebraska,” told with Means’ usual flawless syntax, focuses on a young woman who is involved in an armored truck robbery in Nebraska, engineered by a man named Byron, with whom she lives.  These are amateurs, members of the underground in the late 1960s, planning the robbery to finance bomb making to demolish the status quo, with Byron spouting a lot of rhetoric about striking out against the corrupt system.  Although they make careful plans to execute the robbery, at the crucial moment when Bryon and his partner shoot two Brinks guards, the central female character, in charge of the getaway car, panics and drives away, leaving them literally holding the bag.  The central tension in the story is the young woman’s romantic identification with Depression era thieves, Bonnie and Clyde—not the real bank robbers, however, but Faye Dunaway and Warren Beattie in the movie “Bonnie and Clyde.”
“The Botch” is a more explicit exploration of the gap between the plan and the execution of a robbery. The key phrase, which opens the story, and which is repeated throughout is, “The idea is…” And the basic idea of the thieves in this story, also amateurs, is to “to tap into the old traditions” of the bank heist, in which they see themselves as Robin Hoods, trying to free money from the big syndicates.  The thieves must act formally, like movie stars, playing their roles and thus avoid the typical “botches” that might make the robbery fail.  However, again at the crucial moment, the central character sees a woman on the street in a tight red skirt, stumbling in her high heels, and is distracted, causing him and his partner to shoot an old man in the bank.  After they escape, the central character wants to return to the scene of the crime, approach the woman, and shift the burden of the botch to her.
A more explicit treatment of the gap between the vision and the event is “Oklahoma,” in which a man named Lester picks up two young women and teaches them how to scam stores by picking up receipts in the parking lot, grabbing goods in the store, and returning them for cash back.  The central point-of-view character is a young woman named Genevieve, who is taken in by Lester’s blustering talk of making a movie. Throughout the story, she sees their lives as if they are actors in a film being made, in which they move about in a fake movie night that’s not dark enough to be real, with fake snow on their shoulders, refusing to melt. 
The title story, "The Spot," is about another on the-road couple--Shank, a lost sixties soul who cannot extricate himself from a high, and Meg, a fifteen-year old kid he has picked up and pimps for a seed salesman. The title comes from Shank telling Meg that there is a spot out on the lake, a “suck” where the Cleveland water supply is drawn in.  She thinks about that spot while the john is having sex with her.  After Meg chokes the john to death on his own string tie, Shank takes her to Niagara Falls and pushes her over. The real story is not these horrific events, but, as usual, Means’ masterful telling of them.  In a story within the story, Shank tells the half-sleeping Meg about a man named Ham who lived in an old hobo hangout with a girl who Shank fancies.  Offering to baptize her, Shank has her take off her clothes and holds her down in the water.  When Ham comes running to the stream, Shank holds her down too long and drowns her.
 “A River in Egypt” is a story of one of those terrifying periods between suspicion and confirmation of the worst. The central character Cavanaugh, has taken his son to be tested in a sweat room for cystic fibrosis.  The title derives from the child’s toy called the Question Cube, for which one of the questions is, “What river is in Egypt?”  Means may be playing a little word game on the old pun of “denial,” for this is a delicate story about a father trying to deny or forestall the dreaded test results. The story ends with a moment when the father, who has been concerned with his own anxiety about the future, shifts his attention to the boy lying in the back seat of the car to focus on a luminous present.
“Reading Chekhov” is a version of Chekhov’s famous “Lady with a Pet Dog.”  The story is told in brief sections that move back and forth between the man, who is a 35-year-old part-time student at a seminary, and the woman who is married with a daughter.  They know they are part of the overall tradition of adultery, reading “The Lady with the Pet Dog” together and comparing themselves to Chekhov’s lovers. When walking in the park, the woman’s heel stick in the soft ground and she falls, breaking the bone just above her ankle. She tells her husband she did it stepping off the curb—a lie that makes her decide to end the affair.  Like Chekhov’s famous story, this is a perceptive exploration of the subtle complexities of adultery.
Means is often concerned with essential mysteries that defy explanation. “Facts Toward Understanding the Spontaneous Human Combustion of Errol McGee” is an account told in separate sections of the spontaneous combustion of a man sitting in a chair looking out a window.  The different sections suggest various theories to account for this inexplicable mystery, e.g. the hair ointment the man wears, a sympathetic reaction to his son’s death by napalm during the war, the white heat of memory of a past showgirl lover. This is a story about essential mystery and symbolic explanations, for only symbolic explanations can account for the inscrutable.
In “The Gulch,” three teenage boys crucify another boy on a homemade cross set up in a gulch to see if he will rise from the dead.  The focus of the story is on various possible explanations for the murder, as news commentators and professors try to find reasons and precedents for the crime.  A detective named Collard, who is investigating the case, thinks that when he retires full of stories, the incident in the gulch will be the classic one he pulls out of his hat when the conversation gets boring.  He knows, however, that his job now is to find out who dreamed up the idea and made it true.  Making an idea come true and making stories out of inexplicable acts constitute the themes of many of David Means’ stories in The Spot
“The Knocking,” the shortest story in the collection, is in many ways one of the most complex. The first-person male narrator complains of knocking noises from the man who lives in an identical apartment above him. We know nothing about the narrator or the noisy neighbor—just a lot about the nature of the knocking—until three quarters through the story when the narrator says that the knocking often comes late in the day when the man above knows that he is in his deepest state of reverie, feeling a persistent sense of loss of his wife and kids.  In the last two paragraphs, the narrator begins to identify with the knocker, remembering when he had gone around, fixing things at his own house, trying to keep it in shape. “The Knocking” is about having nothing worthwhile to do, and thus engaging in an activity that is irritating, but that you cannot cease doing.  The rhythm of the story echoes the repetitive, annoying, meaningless actions.  Means creates a timeless universality here that allows the reader to become deeply embedded in the story, caught up in a language event that is, paradoxically, both a personal obsession and an aesthetic creation.

David Means’ unerring ability to transform the seemingly casual into the meaningful causal is what makes him a master of the short story, placing him in the ranks of other great short story writers such as Andre Dubus, Raymond Carver, and Alice Munro, who stubbornly resisted pressure to desert their chosen form for the more highly prized novel.   

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Phil Klay's Redeployment: Is Content Alone Good Enough?

Phil Klay's debut collection of stories about the Iraq War, Redeployment, won the National Book Award for 2014.

Short story collections don't often win the National Book Award. Since the award began in 1950, only the following ten short fiction collections have earned the prize:

1951: The Collected Stories of William Faulkner by William Faulkner
1959: The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud
1960: Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
1966: The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter by Katherine Anne Porter
1972: The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor by Flannery O'Connor
1973: Chimera by John Barth
1974: A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer
1981: The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever
1983: Collected Stories of Eudora Welty by Eudora Welty
1996: Ship Fever and Other Stories by Andrea Barrett

Here are the other nine books in the 2014 Longlist for Fiction:

Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman, Grove Press/ Grove/Atlantic
Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans, W. W. Norton & Company
John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See, Scribner/ Simon & Schuster
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven, Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House
Elizabeth McCracken, Thunderstruck & Other Stories, The Dial Press/ Random House
Richard Powers, Orfeo, W.W. Norton & Company
Marilynne Robinson, Lila, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Jane Smiley, Some Luck, Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House

Little wonder that newspaper reports of the Award Ceremonies in November suggests that Klay (who is 30) seemed surprised that he had won.

Here are the fiction judges for 2014:

Geraldine Brooks won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel, March. A former foreign correspondent, she has reported from more than fifteen countries and wrote two works of nonfiction.
Sheryl Cotleur holds a B.A. from Case Western Reserve University and an M.F.A. from Kent State University. She has been a bookseller for the past 28 years and is currently the frontlist and backlist buyer for Copperfield’s, a chain of seven stores in northern California.
Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece was a finalist for both the 2013 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography
Adam Johnson is the author of Emporium, a story collection, and the novels Parasites Like Us and The Orphan Master's Son, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize.
Lily Tuck is the author of five novels, including The News from Paraguay, winner of the 2004 National Book Award; two collections of stories, Limbo, and Other Places I Have Lived and The House at Belle Fontaine.

A judges' statement reads:  "If all wars ultimately find their own Homer, this brutal, piercing, sometimes darkly funny collection stakes Klay's claim for consideration as the quintessential storyteller of America's Iraq conflict."

Reviews of the book, which came out in March, were mostly high praise.  If characterizing Klay as the new Homer doesn't impress you, Jeff Turrentine of The Washington Post  said if you have been seeking the Tim O'Brien or the Joseph Heller or the Erich Maria Remarque for the Iraqi war, "Mission accomplished."

Dexter Filkins' review in The New York Times calls the book "the best thing written so far on what the war did to people's souls," adding that Klay has a "nearly perfect ear for the language of the grunts."  Also in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani said the book "gives the reader a visceral feeling for what it is like to be a soldier in a combat zone," agreeing that Klay has a "radar-sharp ear for how soldiers talk."

Klay was not a combat soldier, but a public affairs officer (a second lieutenant and then a Captain), who has said he "hung out" with a "wide variety" of Marines while serving a thirteen-month deployment mostly in the Anbar province, during the so-called "surge" of 2007 and 2008 when he was in his mid-twenties.

Afterwards, he got an MFA at Hunter college in 2011. To give him credit, Klay has said in an interview, "I don't want to put myself forward as if I was an in-the-thick-of-it-guy.  I was a public affairs officer.  I worked with the media."  But one gets the feeling that more of Klay's depictions of war actions derive from his research on the Internet after the war than during the war itself. 

Klay  has said that he wants a civilian reader to read the book and "engage with the subject matter." And indeed, it seems to me, it is its subject matter that earned the book its National Book Award—not the writing.

It is hard to resist a firsthand account of one of America's most recent wars, even if it is a so-called "small war." The problem this focus on subject matter, rather than the quality of the writing, raises, is that you just can't compete with it.  You even feel a bit sheepish writing about it.

The best review of the book is the thoughtful, tentative assessment by Ed Taylor in The Buffalo News, who begins by quoting from The Aeneid about the problem: "Far off, o keep far off, you uninitiated ones," which Taylor calls good advice for making literature out of war.  Taylor notes wisely that it is it is difficult even to talk about writing about war without sounding both patronizing and na├»ve.

Taylor says that the problem in writing about war is the tension between factual reporting and fiction writing.  He notes that there is plentiful information in Klay's book about daily military life and combat but that info is not fully mixed into the blended material out of which the best fiction is made. He quite rightly observes that the stories feel as if the agenda was to "render surface material of harrowing circumstances and slow or fast madness and pain and have that be enough."  Taylor ends his review admitting his reluctance to criticize such a book, asking "am I unfairly critical?"

When asked if he thought war had to be experienced firsthand to be understood, Klay has said, "I think that's a dangerous idea… Often we think just because someone has been through an experience means that he or she gets to be the arbiter of what it means." Klay says he does not think that just because someone has been through an experience means that person has "privileged access to some kind of ineffable truth that cannot be spoken.  But he does cite the old joke: "How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a lightbulb?  You wouldn't know, you weren't there."

Margie Romero in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette states the problem in her opening sentence: "Unless you've been through it, nobody really knows what a war is like, calling Klay's stories "like shrapnel in the gut." (Not sure how she would know that).  Romero says these are not just adventure tales, for Klay's aim is to show the "beating heart beneath the body armor." However, just because the stories try to be more than mere "war stories" by focusing on the effect of war on the participants does not necessarily mean they are complex explorations of those human responses.

In an op-ed piece in 2004, Leo Braudy said he doubted that any great novel would come out of Iraq, for previous war literature reflected society's effort to understand violence in the name of an idea, a religious cause, a political point of view—something lacking in so-called "small wars" in the 21st century.  He concluded that perhaps the nature of war and soldiers had changed, for war now seems to have lost its "personal connection to society as a whole and gone back to being a chore relegated to the professionals."

Only in Vietnam did literature of war make a last stand, says Braudy, citing Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried as obvious examples, although he might also have mentioned Larry Heinemann's Paco's Story as well as some of the stories of Tobias Wolff. Indeed, it was the ambiguity of the Vietnam war that most appealed to the literary mind.  David Halberstam said in his novel One Very Hot Day that the one thing one could be sure of if you were a soldier in Vietnam was "yes was no longer yes, no was no longer no, maybe was more certainly maybe."

If you want to write a collection of stories about war, you probably would want to include the following:

A story about the difficulty of returning home.  In the title story, a Sergeant returns home to his wife and does know where to puts his hands without a rifle in them and can't get used to walking down the street without people all around wanting to kill you. He has to kill his beloved aging dog and calls his training into action to do it

A story about the brutality of war:  "Frago," in which, among other horrors, tortured men get a power drill through the ankles.  And you have to have some coarse, tough-guy gibes:  "That's the most blood I've seen since I fucked your mom on her period," which makes all the guys laugh. In Tim O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story, 'he says, "Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty."

A story about how a young soldier is affected after killing an "enemy" young boy. "After Action Report," Make it tough and unfeeling, laugh it off:  The story cites a joke that Marines tell each other about a "liberal pussy journalist asking a Marine sniper, "What is it like to kill a man?  What do you feel when you pull the trigger?  The Marine looks at him and says one word: 'Recoil."

A story about the sheer physicality of war—sex and violence and death:  "Bodies."  The narrator tells about a "hajji corpse (all enemies here are "hajjis", just as enemies in WWII were krauts or japs and in Vietnam they were gooks). The narrator, who works in Mortuary Affairs, says there are two ways to tell the story:  funny, which is the way guys like it, or sad, which is the way girls like it. And there is only one reason to tell it to girls—to get them in bed.

The most obvious gimmick story is "OIF," (acronym for Operation Iraqi Freedom), which is filled with acronyms and practically unreadable without knowing what they mean. A short piece just for fun, in spite of a nod toward seriousness.

A story about the "business" of war, "Money as a Weapons System." The mattress king of northern Kansas sends baseball uniforms and equipment to support "sports diplomacy," in a good-character-building effort for the Iraqis, American style.

A story about women as "cooze," in which guys get infected because they have been sharing a "pocket pussy." If you don't know what that is, google it and a couple of women on YouTube will show you how to make one.

A story about the moral issues of war, post-traumatic stress, and veteran suicide. "Prayer in the Furnace."  This first-person point of view story is by a chaplain who is worried about war crimes, even though he feels that Iraq is holier than home, where, "Gluttonous, fat, oversexed, overconsuming, materialistic home, where we're too lazy to see our own faults." 

A story that provides an opportunity to talk about the ideological issues. "Psychological Operations."  This one focuses on a young vet, a Copt, back home in school having a head-to-head dialogue about the issues with a young woman, a Muslim. The most profound philosophical statement  you can expect: "Perception is reality. In war, sometimes what matters isn't what's actually happening, but what people think is happening."

"War Stories" is not Tim O'Brien, but at least a nod to him. In which war stories are "panty droppers." And the contest is whose has the biggest "war dick." In the most powerful scene in the film, G.I. Jane, Demi Moore tells an abusive, sadistic misogynist soldier to "suck my dick," suggesting that to really be a soldier you had to have one or at least grow one.

"Unless it's a Sucking Chest Wound."— A former Marine goes to law school after leaving the war, providing lots of opportunity to talk about postwar adjustments.

"Ten Kliks South"—Killing people at long distance, as a 19-year old artilleryman tries to confirm his kill and learn to live with it.

This is not a great collection of short stories. It is a job of work done in a workmanlike fashion.  The judges of the National Book Award should not, in my opinion, have been so impressed by mere content, even if that content is the age-old "war is hell."

Monday, December 22, 2014

Ghosts of my Past, or Why I Can't Write Short Stories

Christmas is always about the past. Ebenezer Scrooge's first and most poignant visit is with the ghost of Christmas Past.  And Truman Capote 's "Christmas Memory" begins with fruitcake weather when he was a child.
I indulge myself today and strain the patience of my readers by recalling a bit of my own past, primarily for folks who know me.  My occasional readers may, with my apologies, skip over it and get back to the serious stuff I try to write about the short story as a literary form.
I used to amaze and appall my students with stories about my childhood. While they sneaked tweets and texts on their i-phones, they  smiled that we did not have electricity in our house until I was twelve—and, of course, no running water, or natural gas, not to mention no indoor plumbing. Carrying the slop jar out to the toilet and gouging small chunks of coal out of a snow-covered frozen pile in the yard were two of my responsibilities.
Now that I am seventy-three, I recall that pre-adolescent era of my life with a kind of arrogant pride, especially when I watch my seventeen-year old grandson transfixed in front of his laptop, ear bud wires stringing down his cheeks, playing video games involving the kind of super heroes I used to read about in limp and ragged comic books that we swapped with cousins who lived on the other side of the railroad track a mile away.
I was the oldest of five children and helped my mother care for my two brothers and two sisters, spaced, between three and five years apart, from the time I was four. My father was a truck driver and was usually gone on runs up to Cincinnati, Ohio or down to Knoxville, Tennessee except on the weekends, which he spent listening to ball games on the battery-powered radio. By battery, I don’t mean those little marvels of compression that I have to constantly recharge, but rather a heavy pack of dry cells that could have been used to start a car.
I always mark the beginning of my life with a memory I never really had of my maternal grandfather and grandmother.
I see my grandmother sitting in a small shack stringing and breaking green beans into her aproned lap. Her tanned hands, although young, are already cracked and wrinkled from washing my grandfather's clothes in hard lye soap and hoeing in the garden. She breaks the beans quickly with a sharp snap and looks at her wedding day portrait on the wall.
I look at a black and white copy of that picture today on the wall behind my computer screen and remember it hanging above the bed of my grandfather's living room, the string of flowers draped across my grandmother's brimmed black hat tinted a faded rose. She stands straight and proud, her round face solemn above the high white collar of her blouse. Beside her, my grandfather stares straight into the camera with  coal-black eyes and a thin moustache. He was twenty six at the time; she was 21. Although only taken the year before, already the girl in the picture must have seemed distant to the woman looking at her. Her husband was down the road playing cards with men he worked with in the mines.
Years after my grandmother died, when my grandfather, paralyzed by a stroke, lay in bed in his small living room, I would stare at that picture with the fire light flickering on the faces and be afraid my grandmother's ghost haunted the house. When I was five, I had clutched my mother's dress in front of her open coffin  before the cold fireplace in the same room, the sickly sweetness of the flowers mixing with the musty odor of the house. And didn't my grandfather once tell us that he had heard her voice speaking to him from a large rock at the corner of the garden up on the hill? He never told us what she said.
She might have smiled looking down at the beans in a lap, made smaller by the child in her belly. Then she heard the shot. A sharp crack that made her jump and spill the broken beans. She must have known immediately that it was Jarvey, for she grabbed a kitchen knife and cut the newspaper backing off the picture, removing it from the frame and rolling it up with a ribbon. Then she got the cardboard suitcase from under the bed and placed the picture in it carefully, packing her stockings and cotton underwear around it. She was gathering the rest of their few pieces of clothing when, red- faced with drink, he came through the door. "I've shot a man," he said. "We have to get out of here."
My grandmother told this story to my mother many times, and she in turn told it to me—so often that it took on a mythical quality, and I filled in with my imagination details that my mother's sketchy version left out. I don't think my grandfather really killed that man, for the law never came after him. But he was capable of it. He was known as "Black Jarvey" when he was young, and it was said (another mythic story of my family) that Devil Anse Hatfield asked him to ride with him in that well-known feud that the History Channel and Kevin Costner have made more famous. He turned Hatfield down. But I know he used to carry a small black thirty-eight revolver that always tempted me from where it hung behind a picture of my great-grandparents by the fireplace mantle.
Avoiding the main road, they took off  through the woods on foot and headed north toward Eastern Kentucky, my mother said, where my grandfather knew a man who might let him do some sharecropping. Somewhere in the mountains, my grandmother gave birth to a premature boy, and, to my grandmother's everlasting sorrow, my grandfather left it in a shallow grave. They walked, I don't know how many days, until they came to a narrow valley along the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River in Johnson County, Kentucky, where, indeed, a man my grandfather knew did take him on as a sharecropper and gave him the use of a hillside above the river where he built a living room and bought a cast iron bed. It was in that bed that my mother, their last child, was born. And sixteen years later, it was there that my mother gave birth to me, her first.
The house, which is just south of Paintsville, Kentucky in an area called "The Nars," had a living room with a fireplace, a narrow windowless kitchen, a concrete-floored dining room, and two small bedrooms. The Nars, is, I learned at some point in my childhood,  a mispronunciation of the word "Narrows." It aptly describes a long, lean corridor created by Levisa Fork, bounded on both sides by hills so high that, depending on the season, the sun came up late and set early. Just above the river was the C&O railroad line. And just above that, in front of my grandfather's house, ran U.S. Highway 23.
By sharecropping, my grandfather earned a strip of land about sixty yards wide, extending vertically from the top of the hill to the edge of the river. There was very little of the steep rocky hillside he did not cultivate. "If you can't eat it," he would say, "I don't see no use planting it."
The two-mile strip known as the Nars was anchored on one end by Depot Hill, at the top of which a bootlegger named Peg Ward with a white pine 2x2 for a left leg lived and did business in a small tar-paper shack. On the other end was Dead Man's curve, a hairpin, where my father always said you could meet your own arse going around it. These were the points where, no matter where you stood in the Nars, your line of vision ended. There were only half a dozen modest houses in between.
Coming up U.S. 23 from town, after you passed Peg Ward's place, there was a quarter mile of sheer rock cliffs, where the road was so narrow that the big coal trucks nearly blew me off on to the railroad track below. Then came what was called "the breakdown" and the black-looking house of old Bob Rice and his wife Sallie. Bob was a drunk, and when he couldn't afford Peg's bootleg whiskey, he drank Mennen After Shave. The branch between his house and Papaw's was filled with the squat, green empty bottles.
Just past Papaw's place was the little house where I lived with my mother, father, two brothers, and a sister. Perched on a rock cliff just above and beyond us was the house of Charlie Ray Baker and his wife Nannie, a big woman my tiny mother almost had a fight with once, and their four children. Just past another stretch of rock cliffs that lined the road was the house where my paternal grandmother lived, and just above and beside it a small house which for several years we rented from my Uncle Bill for twelve dollars a month.
About a half mile on up the road, where the river took a sharp bend, was Fred Price's big gray stone house with an elaborate fish pond in front. If the Nars had been a far and distant land in a fairy tale, Fred Price's place would have been the castle. Price owned the pasture land above the highway all the way up to Dead Man's Curve. He also owned the big red bull that chased my brother and me when we went to pick blackberries or gather paw paws--a story my children and my grandchildren never tired of hearing.
The last house, located at the sharpest point of Dead Man's Curve belonged to my uncle Bill's girlfriend. Most everyone thought she was a witch; she once took warts off my fingers by holding my hands, closing her eyes, and mumbling words I couldn't understand. Just past the curve was the Newsom Family Cemetery, where all my mother's people, as well as my parents, are buried. There is a place marked out for me there, where Jordan, my younger daughter, has promised to take my ashes. I have a small polished wooden box on my bookshelf, which originally held an expensive bottle of Irish whiskey, reserved for that purpose.
My grandfather's farm held a great deal for such a small scrap of land. A few steps away from the house was the smokehouse, where salted sides of meat lay on newspaper-covered shelves and brown hams hung from hooks in the ceiling. Next was the open-slatted crib filled with corn which I shelled for the chickens and threw in the pen for the hogs. The barn had three stalls––one for the chickens and one each for a horse and a cow, both of which were sold before I was born. The barn had a mysterious second floor, which once held hay, but now was used for storing just about anything that would not fit anyplace else. 
My Uncle George, a small mine owner, kept his black powder there, wrapped in heavy waxed paper in rough wooden boxes. I  was warned never to go near it. But who could resist its powdery pungency? Also there, hanging from cross beams, stretched on boards, were hides of muskrats trapped by my uncle Charlie. Beside  the barn was the hog pen, with one large old sow that Uncle Bill was fattening. In the fall, my grandfather would hit it on the forehead with a short-handled sledge, slit its throat when it fell to its knees, hoist it up on a tripod, and expertly gut and dress it. Finally, at the farthest edge of the property was the toilet perched on the side of the hill above the road––a three–seater well stocked with slick-paged Sears catalogues and corncobs.
From the time I was five years old until I was sixteen, the Nars was pretty much my whole world. I went to school in town––a county seat of a little over four thousand. No other children from school lived in the Nars, so it was often lonely. Town, however, filled with strangers, was frequently frightening, so I was always glad to get home.
My students at California State University, Long Beach, where I taught for forty years, would of often ask me, if I knew so much about the short story, why I did not write short stories. I have tried to write stories about my life for the last  sixty years and still have in my file cabinet ragged typed pages of material I wrote when I was twelve. I really would like to create a group of short stories from these experiences.  But what often happens is that I get bored trying to write them. Just moving my persona across the room seems so tedious to me. I really love sentences rather than plots, but am not quite sure how to construct a voice that captures the mysteries of my life.
Maybe my life has no mysteries; maybe that is the problem. Whenever I begin to write, I hope I will find some meaning in mere experiences, some central core in various anecdotes that will pull the piece together and make it glow with significance. Part of the problem is that I don’t seem to have that obsession that makes writers write fiction, that compulsion that drives them to carry on and on. I used to think I did, when I was young.  But now I know better. I am a reader, not a writer. 
Happy Holiday to those who stumble on this bit of personal background. I will get back to the real business of my blog right after Christmas.